Chinese investment too low to be the driver of soaring house prices, study finds

It’s a common perception that Chinese buyers are descending upon Australia and driving up housing prices to unaffordable levels.

However, Chinese buyers had almost no impact on property prices, according to research by business consultancy Cross Border Management (CBM) and BIS Oxford Economics.

The study found that Chinese buyers accounted for less than 2 per cent of all Australian real estate transactions, and contributed less than 1 per cent ($122 out of $12,800) to the average quarterly housing price increase.

Their slightly more mundane conclusion is that the factors behind the nation’s high property prices are record-low interest rates and strong population growth.

Chinese investment ‘negligible’

Chinese investment in Australia rose from $6.2 billion (in 2007) to $87.2 billion (in 2016), CBM stated in its report.

That is a fourteen-fold increase in 10 years.

Although this is a rapid increase, the amount of Chinese investment is rather low, compared to the total amount invested by the United States.

America’s total investment in Australia was at an already-high $433 billion in 2006.

In the last 10 years, the US investment doubled to $861 billion, which is certainly slower than China’s fourteen-fold boom in the same period.

But when comparing the total value of investments in 2016, the US figure is 10 times higher than China’s ($87.2 billion).

“While the growth in Chinese investment has been significant, it pales in comparison to investment flows from other countries,” said CBM’s managing director CT Johnson.

After the US, the next biggest Australian investors were the UK, Belgium, Hong Kong and Singapore, then China.

“Chinese capital flows into Australia have been almost negligible, accounting for just 2.7 per cent of inbound investment,” he said.

Are they really Chinese?

“Where East Asians used to account for only 1 in 18 Australians, now they are 1 out of every 12,” said Mr Johnson.

He also said the “East Asian” category included people from Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia, who are mistakenly identified as Chinese (which is a common experience).

Adding to the perception that Chinese buyers are flooding the Australian property market is the high concentration of Chinese residents in certain neighbourhoods.

For instance, almost every fourth person speaks Mandarin in the Melbourne neighbourhood of Clayton, while that figure is higher in the Sydney suburb of Burwood — every 1 in 3.

The CBM study also found there was no correlation between the number of Mandarin speakers and the annual rise in property prices (across 79 neighbourhoods with the highest proportion of Mandarin speakers).

Land squeeze a problem

“The other major factor in housing price growth is population relative to available land,” Mr Johnson said, particularly as most Australians live around the coast, hemmed by geographical features like oceans and mountains.

He believes this makes it challenging to develop new land in response to population growth (up 18 per cent since 2006).

“Australian housing prices are much more correlated with interest rates and population growth than with Chinese investment,” Mr Johnson said.

In 2007, the Reserve Bank set the official interest rate between 6.25 and 6.75 per cent, and the median Sydney house price was a bit over $500,000 (taking into account the lower population of about 20 million people).

Fast forward 10 years and Australia now has a historic-low 1.5 per cent interest rate, plus a population of around 23.5 million. With record low borrowing costs, the median Sydney price rose to just over $900,000.

China’s government has more recently been cracking down on overseas investments, resulting in large Chinese developers pulling out of some high-priced property developments.

Furthermore, Chinese buyers are now subject to higher stamp duty and land tax, and Foreign Investment Review Board application fees.